CEDAR FALLS — The University of Northern Iowa football team kicks off spring practice Wednesday inside the UNI-Dome, and as usual there is plenty of work to be done.
After making a second consecutive trip to the second round of the playoffs in December, UNI graduated several key players.
That list starts with quarterback Eli Dunne.
The frontrunners to replace Dunne are redshirt sophomore Jacob Keller, redshirt freshman Will McElvain and true freshman Nate Martens, who graduated from high school early and enrolled at UNI in January.
Another freshman, Justin Fomby, will join the mix in August.
Panther head coach Mark Farley said Monday that the competition to start against Iowa State on Aug. 31 will carry deep into preseason practice.
“You have quarterbacks that need to establish themselves,” Farley said. “Somebody needs to rise to the top ... not just one. You are going to have to bring all three along to find that person who will become the starter next season.”
Of the three, only Keller has appeared in a game for UNI. In two appearances last year, he completed his only pass for 18 yards in UNI’s playoff win over Hampton where he also rushed twice for eight yards.
McElvain stands only 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds, but he gradually put himself on the coaching staff’s radar last year when, for much of the season, he got equal practice reps with Dunne, Keller and Colton Howell.
Farley recalls another 5-10 quarterback who excelled at UNI — his former teammate Mike Smith. Smith passed for 9,067 yards and 68 touchdowns in his career, earning the Gateway Conference Offensive Player of the Year in 1985. He was inducted into UNI’s Hall of Fame in 2006.
“I played with a 5-foot-10 quarterback and we played all the way to the semifinals, multiple times,” Farley said. “It is not the size anymore ... it is more how dynamic are they and how efficient are they. Will McElvain is probably as dynamic as any quarterback we have on campus right now.”
Martens, a left-handed thrower, was a three-star recruit out of DeSmet H.S. in St. Louis and spurned a pair of FBS offers to join the Panther program.
“They all need reps. They all need to be with different units, and they all need to grow exponentially to get where we want to go,” Farley said. “It’s an open game. I don’t know if there is an answer to that question, but it is not about age.”
After quarterback, Farley said the focal point will be finding a second tight end to go alongside all-conference performer Briley Moore.
UNI graduated Elias Nissen at that position, whon Farley said might be the toughest Panther to replace because of his blocking and leadership.
The top three candidates are Tristan Bohr, a senior from Crestwood who served as UNI’s third tight end last year, and redshirt freshmen Alex Allen and Jayden Scott. Joining that competition in the fall will be Maverick Gatrost of Center Point and Dawson Fenton of Sioux City.
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“We have to establish the other tight end along with Briley because our 12 personnel set is going to be much more multiple than 11 personnel will be,” Farley said.
Linebacker comes next for the Panthers where UNI graduated Duncan Ferch, Kendrick Suntken and Blake Thomas.
The cupboard isn’t entirely bare. Chris Kolarevic was averaging better than 10 tackles a game before being sidelined by injury against South Dakota. Sophomore Bryce Flater proved to be more than capable when called upon late in the season and in the playoffs where his downhill style impressed UNI’s coaching staff.
Alfonzo Lambert, who played in 12 games and recorded 38 tackles, is also back, and junior college transfer Spencer Cuvelier will join the mix.
“Multiple injuries and multiple rotations ... we were down to our third- and fourth-team linebackers who started for us in the playoffs,” Farley said. “We need to establish that group as much as the quarterback position.”
UNI will hold a spring game or a controlled scrimmage on April 27 at 2 p.m. inside the UNI-Dome. The intensity and length will be determined based on available players.
OUT OF ACTION: Running back Trevor Allen, center Mason Neisen, offensive lineman Nick Ellis, safety Christian Jegen, Kolarevic, and defensive tackle Jared Brinkman will not participate in spring drills.
Wide receiver Isaiah Weston, a preseason all-conference pick last year before suffering a knee injury, will be held out of contact drills.
NEW COACH: Former Minnesota Golden Gopher Isaac Fruechte joined the staff Monday as the Panthers’ new wide receivers coach.
Fruechte replaces Pat McCann, who left for Eastern Washington last month, returning home. McCann is a native of Olympia, Wash., and played collegiately at Western Washington.
He spent two seasons as UNI’s receiver coach.
Fruechte comes from Wisconsin-La Crosse, where last season he was the Eagles’ offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach. He graduated from Minnesota in 2014 and spent time on both the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions practice squads during the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
Fruechte is a native of Caledonia, Minn.
Former Panther Keelon Brookins also has joined the staff as a graduate assistant where he will help defensive coordinator Jeremiah Johnson coach the defensive backs.
PRO DAY TUESDAY: UNI will hold its annual Pro Day Tuesday with weightlifting at 1:30 p.m. followed by drills on the UNI-Dome turf.
Among those who will participate are 2018 seniors Bryce Douglas, Eli Dunne, Austin Errthum, Brink Jolly, Rickey Neal, Jr., Elias Nissen, Cal Twait and Marcus Weymiller, along with 2013 graduate Terrell Sinkfield, Grand View’s Tony Anderson and Drake’s Grant Kraemer.
Fans are welcome to attend the on-field portion, but are asked to remain in the stands.